Every child on Maui knows that our island has a realistic chance to become the first island in America to be powered by 100 percent renewable energy. The island is blessed with wind, sunshine, warm weather and a lack of heavy industry. Electricity generation prices could fall to a couple cents.

Known for decades as one of the best islands in the world, Maui attracts 2 million affluent visitors each year, who may take this inspiration home and empower the 100 percent renewable revolution worldwide.

Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa put the 100 percent option squarely on the table during the recent Maui Energy Conference; he also stated recently that he is interested in having Maui Electric turned into a locally owned co-op similar to Kauai Electric.

But right now, a merger of Maui Electric’s parent company with $15 billion behemoth NextEra Energy is pending and will be decided by the PUC by year’s end. NextEra has great resources to build wind and solar installations, but so far has chosen to follow Maui Electric’s misguided plan to move towards natural gas and invest $545 million toward that goal.

Maui Electric

Maui Electric’s planned investment in natural gas would delay by decades  the widely shared goal of achieving 100 percent reliance on renewable energy sources.

Wikimedia Commons

With earnings in the few $10 million a year, such an investment would lock Maui Electric into natural gas and delay 100 percent renewables for decades.

But NextEra could choose a better route. How about, energy guru John Farrell muses, if the PUC would demand 100 percent renewable power by 2030 in return for granting the merger?

Maui will spend an estimated $22 billion dollars over the next 50 years in fuel costs alone. Right now most of that money goes to Asia. Once Maui burns natural gas, the money will pay for environmentally questionable fracking operations in North America. Compare this to the fuel cost of a 100 percent renewable system: $0.

Maui Electric is also Maui’s biggest polluter — by far. The carbon dioxide emitted from its smokestacks is comparable to the exhausts of 95,000 cars. This dwarfs every well-meaning effort to drive a Hybrid or move to more energy efficient light bulbs. The leadership of the electric utility has the greatest impact on the biggest danger facing humankind, climate change, and is not really stepping up to the task.

Politicians are eager to design the future. The mayor, the governor and the Legislature stand by the 100 percent goal. But Maui Electric keeps stalling — they say that technical breakthroughs will be needed before 100 percent renewable use can be achieved. Are they right, or is there already a proven path to achieve this goal?

It’s not easy to achieve 100 percent renewable energy use. Maui, with its 150,000 residents, is at the top of the world with 28 percent of its energy coming from sun and wind. So far, this has been made possible by utilizing the built-in flexibility of our diesel generators. But soon, there will be excess energy created during sunny, windy days while the evening peak is underserved. At that point, PV installations will come to a grinding halt.

Bulk storage of electricity is needed and batteries will be no match for the immense amount of storage needed. But there is an alternative. The Spanish island of El Hierro was the first one to build 100 percent renewable energy by combining wind power and pumped storage. This storage technology has been proven since 1890 in hundreds of installations throughout the world and is ideal for Maui. At the Maui Energy Conference, HINA Power Corp displayed such a system designed for Maui, based on solar PV and pumped storage.

HINA proves that there is no need to wait for 2040 for some magical technology improvements. It could be built with proven technologies by 2020 and paid off by 2030. Done — $22 billion saved. Could that be done on Oahu as well? Quite probable, says John Wehrheim in a recent ThinkTech interview.

This year is pivotal for Hawaii’s energy future. The proposed merger has opened up the possibility for pivotal changes at Hawaiian Electric like never before and the PUC is actively listening to public input. Once the path toward natural gas is chosen, the opportunity will close.

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